A rare false step in Ken's dark arts. But will he overcome this lapse?

By Martin Bright, March 29, 2012

There are certain words you don't associate with Ken Livingstone. "Regret" is one, "sorry" is another and, as for "humility", it is hard to think of the concept in connection with Labour's veteran candidate for London mayor.

There is something historic about the article Mr Livingstone has written for the JC this week. In his long career, has he ever before admitted he was wrong?

Those who know the old campaigner will remain sceptical. "Jewish voters are not one homogenous block". Really? This seems to fly in the face of everything the Livingstone camp has done in the past. But here it is in black and white: "On London's communities, if I am elected my policy will not be to promote one faith or community over another, as has been suggested in this election, but to promote inter-faith and inter-community dialogue". We shall see.

Tellingly, there is no mention of Yusuf al-Qaradawi or Press TV in his article.

In the past, Ken Livingstone has had a simple strategy for winning elections: segmentation. By dividing the electorate into crude blocs based on class, ethnicity, religion, geographical area and even sexuality, he and his team believe they can calibrate which group is for or against them and focus their efforts accordingly.

Those who know him of old will remain sceptical

In one sense, the strategy is entirely pragmatic, recognising that Mr Livingstone is a controversial figure who will never appeal to a broad range of voters. But the effect has been to set whole sections of the capital against each other: Muslim against Jew, inner city against suburb, working class against bourgeois.

This approach works against the prevailing logic of post-Blairite politics, which holds that mainstream politicians must always seize the centre ground in order to win elections. In the last London mayoral election this strategy was catastrophic for Mr Livingstone as his campaign abandoned swathes of the capital to his opponent. Despite warnings from senior Labour figures and grassroots activists, he simply failed to campaign in suburban greater London, gambling that inner-city boroughs would deliver him victory. Although Mr Livingstone continues to blame a range of hostile forces from the Board of Deputies to the Evening Standard for his defeat, he really only had himself to blame.

This sectarian strategy has other perverse effects. When Mr Livingstone received the catastrophic advice that the Egyptian Islamist cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi was a moderate figure with broad appeal in the Muslim community, he ended up embracing a man who had justified suicide bombing, the killing of homosexuals and female circumcision.

Thus, in a single poorly-judged gesture designed to attract a block of votes, the then mayor alienated Jews, women and members of the gay community across the capital, not to mention moderate Muslims and Labour voters turned off by identity politics.

Following through the logic of electoral segmentation, it is not difficult to see that the clich├ęd figure of the wealthy, suburban Jew does not fit the profile of a Livingstone target voter.

Most electoral strategies are maximalist: they recognise the need to attract floating voters from outside the party's core support. The Livingstone strategy has been minimalist. Recognising his limited appeal, Mr Livingstone hones in mercilessly on his imagined core (quite where aberrations such as middle-class suburban Muslims or poor inner-city Jews figure is unclear).

When committed Labour-voting Jews appealed to their candidate at the beginning of this month, his reaction suggested they simply did not have a place in his world view.

Has Mr Livingstone genuinely turned his back on sectarianism? The new language of reconciliation is important. But if he wins the election in May he will be judged by his actions.

Last updated: 1:31pm, March 29 2012